Evolving as a Character Artist: From Concept to Design

Evolving as a Character Artist: From Concept to Design

Champlain College student Kaitlyn Small shares her journey as a 3D Character Artist, from tackling the challenges of transforming a simple concept into a fully realised character, to experiencing significant personal and artistic growth along the way.

In the realm of character modeling, the journey from a simple concept to a fully realised 3D character is filled with challenges and growth. During her Junior year, Kaitlyn Small, embarked on the endeavour of bringing one of her own concepts to life.

However, it was during her Senior year that Kaitlyn recognised the areas for improvement and undertook a significant redesign, fuelled by newfound techniques and software tools.

This article shares how Kaitlyn has evolved as a Character Artist with the support she received from peers and professors, all within the unique and nurturing environment of Champlain College. Read on for more inspiration!

When I was taking my Advanced Seminar class - a class that allows you to create your own curriculum and focus on work for your portfolio - Junior year, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to turn one of my own concepts into a 3D Character.

I sketched out this concept after I came up with a series of mushroom characters that each embody a different personality and corresponding colour palette. This character would be the peppy and energetic one of the group, thus the bright reds and pinks. I never got around to fully concepting the other two, but they are still in my sketchbook if I ever want to work on them later.

Original concept

I had not yet taken a formal class on character modeling, but I wanted to try it anyways. I had intro-level knowledge of sculpting in ZBrush, but after watching a few Youtube videos, I figured I could work it out as I went. I was also lucky enough to have a professor with more specialized knowledge in character modeling. I got weekly feedback, which helped me a lot during this process. Thank you to Chas Elterman for all of the help and feedback during this class.

Before tackling a full character, I wanted to start out with a bust. While it did help me ease into character modeling, part of me wishes I had dedicated the entire semester to my Mushroom Girl, since a full-body character is a big chunk of work. Because of this timeline, I did feel a little rushed when working on this character. Nonetheless, I felt really proud of this project, since it was my first big step towards becoming a character artist. I couldn’t wait to put it in my portfolio and show it off to everyone.

Original render
Original sculpt

It came time to time to finalise my portfolio for my Senior year. After having worked on a few other characters, I looked back on this one and only saw all of the things I did poorly. However, this kind of recognition is an inevitable sign of growth. Because I had learned some more techniques and tricks, I wanted to go back to this character and update it. And by update, I mean almost redo the entire thing.

Over the summer, I learned a better technique for sculpting hair, so I redid that. Then I also wanted to make the outfit more layered and detailed, so I redid that too! I also made some minor changes to the shoes and face, but those weren’t as taxing. This process also went by much faster, though, since I didn’t have to start from the ground up.

Updated concept

One of my favourite things to work on for this character, and characters in general, was the hair. It’s one of those things where I can get in the zone and make something really pretty relatively effortlessly.

I always start the hair with a block-out by masking the part of the head/scalp that I want to cover, and extrude it. I then build the general shape on top of the hair with the Clay Buildup brush (make sure to turn on Backface Masking so the brush strokes don’t affect the underside of the extrusion). The time I spend on this process depends on the overall shape of the hair. For this character, the hair is pulled into braids, so there aren’t a lot of loose chunks/strands flowing around; therefore, this hairstyle mainly consisted of the block out.

Once I was happy with the overall shape, I switched to the Dam Standard Brush and used Alpha 62. This creates dynamic strokes that really mimic the look of hair without having to create individual strands. I learned this technique from a YouTube video by Ana Carolina Art. I went around the hair, following the direction that the hair sits when it is pulled into this braided hairstyle. It’s really important to use references for this part of the process because the way the hair flows from the scalp is very specific. I also adjusted the size of the brush based on the section I was working on.

Once I was done with that process, I started to add the flyaways to give the hairstyle more dimension. I did this by using the Curve brush and adjusting the stroke size. I also learned this technique from the aforementioned video, and I think it’s a great resource for creating stylized hair. I used a similar technique to create the bangs, just with a different curve brush that has more squared-off edges. The brush that I used is the DE Hair Tubes Brush by Dylan Ekren on Gumroad. This brush is also great for a stylized hair effect.

Hair sculpt close-ups
DamStandard brush with Alpha 62

In addition to the new skills that I had picked up, I also had some new software to help make things look even better. My original renders were done using the IRAY renderer in ZBrush, as was the standard practice in most of my classes. However, I wanted to try rendering in Marmoset to play around with lighting and effects to make my final renders look even more professional. I found a tutorial on YouTube, which covered all the basics that I would need for the kind of renders I wanted to do, as well as a turntable. And, after feedback from my peers who were able to take the Character Modeling class, I decided to pose my character in ZBrush for added visual interest. This was a somewhat janky way to approach posing, but if I had more than a semester to work on this project I would’ve made a rig instead.

Final sculpt turnaround

After getting tips and feedback from my peers and professor, I ended up with a character that I was even more proud of. The amount of growth that I had shown in just a year was really exciting. Also, due to a bunch of complications with timing and location, I was never able to take the Character Modeling class that my school offered, so I’ve been mostly self-taught. Even then, I am so thankful for my friends (who were able to take the class) who gave me feedback and taught me tools/shortcuts to make my own workflow easier. Their support really skyrocketed my growth in a way that wouldn’t have happened on its own. I also want to thank my professors at Champlain nfor giving me the starting point I needed to move forward and proceed with character modeling.

Having just graduated from college, I get to reflect on my four years at Champlain College. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to participate in such a unique and exciting program. I now get to take my love for art and apply it in a functional way for the gaming industry.

Since Champlain College is a smaller school, it allowed us to create a close-knit community and get to know the professors on a more personal basis. Because of this, I felt a lot more comfortable seeking out advice and feedback, and I felt that our professors were more invested in our individual successes.

I was also surrounded by incredibly talented and supportive peers. Everybody was so nice and willing to help each other. I especially saw this culminate during our last semester when people were recommending each other to recruiters. It was so nice seeing everyone be proud of each other’s successes and achievements. Having gone into my Freshman year with a serious case of Imposter’s syndrome, it felt really validating to have my peers (who I looked up to for their talent) compliment me on my own work.

During this past semester, my professor, JoAnn Patel, encouraged us to submit work to the Rookies competition. I was hesitant at first, but she explained that this competition was for a wide variety of levels, so it would be okay to submit our student work. This made me a lot more confident when submitting my work, and now I get to see it alongside all of the other talented artists from our school.

You can find more of Kaitlyn's work on The Rookies and ArtStation.

Learn more about studying at Champlain College here.